Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:05 pm on 24th January 2008.

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Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Spokesperson in the Lords (Tourism), Culture, Media & Sport, Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence, Whip 12:05 pm, 24th January 2008

My Lords, ones hopes that we are slowly approaching the end game in Iraq—certainly in a military sense. It is very apposite that we are having this debate today on the lessons learned, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on securing it. I very much support so much of what he said and these Benches certainly support his call for an inquiry, as we have done in the past.

The minority view is that military action, despite the death of 150,000 civilians in the 40 months following the coalition invasion in March 2003 and the destruction and misery heaped on Iraq, with 2 million refugees, was justified as it removed an evil, tyrannical regime. Clearly that was the opinion of our former Prime Minister, and appears to remain so. But the majority view, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, is that the invasion was a huge mistake for Iraq and the United Kingdom.

To this day, we do not really know what Bush's motivation was—finishing a job for father, revenge for 9/11, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, oil, Middle East domination or some combination. However, it is accepted that Tony Blair gave a very early commitment to back the United States invasion, a combination of supporting our major ally and a rather simplistic belief, perhaps, that Saddam Hussein had to be deposed and that once removed our forces would be welcomed with open arms.

Three fundamental mistakes were made. First, too few troops were committed initially, with Rumsfeld seemingly overruling so many of his military advisers. Secondly, post-invasion, the Iraqi army was disbanded, thereby removing the means to provide some form of discipline and control over the population. Thirdly, as has been mentioned, very little thought was given to the post-invasion needs of the country and the means of delivery and reconstruction.

It is not clear how much knowledge the US and the United Kingdom have of the Iraqi religious groupings or the likely effect of an invasion on Islamist thinking. After all, we had no embassy in Baghdad in Saddam's final 12 years of rule. What has become apparent is how little interest our then political leaders took in trying to find any of this out. As the famous letter—from 52 of our former senior British diplomats on 27 April 2004—sent to Tony Blair said:

"The conduct of the war in Iraq has made it clear that there was no effective plan for the post-Saddam settlement.

"All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the Coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case.

"To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.

"Policy must take account of the nature and history of Iraq, the most complex country in the region".

If we got it wrong, the French got it right. Dominic de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, declared in a speech to the United Nations Security Council two weeks before the invasion:

"We believe that the use of force can arouse rancour and hatred, fuel a clash of identities and cultures".

Jacques Chirac argued in an article in Time magazine:

"A war of this kind cannot help giving a big lift to terrorism. It would create a large number of little bin Ladens".

It seems extraordinary that Britain and France—two major, sophisticated allies, only 20 miles apart, in the 21st century and both with colonial histories—could reach such fundamentally different conclusions on the advisability of military action. Those on these Benches broadly took the French position. Not only did the conflict cause such misery in Iraq, it also has put a heavy strain on our Armed Forces, causing many deaths and serious injuries. To put it bluntly, the British public were conned into going to war and now a further wedge has been driven between them and their political leaders in terms of trust, with all parliamentarians the losers.

Much has been said about overstretch and the pressures on the defence budget. There seems little possibility of any significant increase in defence expenditure—none of our political parties is advocating this. Given our ongoing commitments, particularly in Afghanistan, and with a very unsettled world, we have to eschew unilateral military action in future, other than perhaps in very limited circumstances. We have to work more closely with our allies, particularly the French, to avoid another Iraq-type schism. I accept that in the de Gaulle era and beyond, military co-operation with the French was difficult—even now, protectionism prevails in their defence procurement. But a new French president presents a new opportunity. With an Anglo-French summit in March, and with France assuming the EU presidency in July, it is time to hold out the hand of military co-operation. Let us bring France into the integrated military structure. We never want a repeat of the Iraqi fallout and there are huge gains to be had if we can co-operate militarily with France.

In Iraq, military conflict and insurgent attacks on coalition forces seem to be subsiding. It appears that the US military surge, and the strategy of General Petraeus, have been successful, particularly in turning some of the factions—and all credit for that. However, it is questionable what our limited forces, based at Basra airport, are achieving, and we would like to see them home sooner rather than later. Although the military scene offers some hope, the job of reconstruction and democratic nation rebuilding will clearly take years, set against the background of deep tribal and religious differences, and of adjacent nations pursuing their own agendas. Military action is relatively easy to start—the consequences can last for generations.